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The Emperor as Aesthete

By Dana Micucci

As patron and collector, the long-reigning Qianlong emperor put his mark on Chinese art.

Tucked behind the massive walls of the Forbidden City in Beijing, the onetime seat of China’s emperors, is Juanqinzhai, the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service. A jewel among the many yellow-tile roofed buildings that comprise the royal precinct (now known as the Palace Museum), this intimate, exquisitely designed two-story structure was built for the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736–95) and completed in 1776. It is situated within the Qianlong Garden, a meandering complex of pavilions, halls, courtyards, ancient trees, rockeries (false mountains) and grottoes in the northeastern section of the precinct that the emperor designed for his retirement.

Following the demise of the dynastic system of rule, the Chinese republic allowed the general public access to the Forbidden City in 1925. But Juanqinzhai remained forbidden until this past year, when it finally opened after a six-year, multimillion-dollar restoration undertaken by the New York-based World Monuments Fund in cooperation with the Palace Museum (the entire Qianlong Garden is expected to open in 2019). Visitors to Beijing can now experience one of the most lavishly decorated historic interiors in China, a true time capsule untouched since imperial times. And on February 3 in New York, the Metropolitan Museum opens the exhibition “The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City,” which originated at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and after closing at the Met on May 1 travels to the Milwaukee Art Museum (June 11–Sept. 12). The show features 90 objects of major artistic importance from the Qianlong Garden that have never before been exhibited. Taken together, they reveal how one man put his aesthetic stamp on his era, one of the most artistically illustrious in Chinese history.

The Qianlong emperor, the fourth ruler in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), reigned during a period in which China was the world’s largest and richest nation, and his studio reflects his extravagant tastes and possession of the means to gratify them. It also reflects his superlative connoisseurship. An artist himself, as well as a formidable patron of the arts and insatiable collector famous for his scholarship, the emperor oversaw every detail of Juanqinzhai’s design, sparing no expense on exotic materials and unparalleled craftsmanship. The walls and screens of the glittering nine-room interior—which includes an audience chamber and private theater and several smaller second-floor rooms for activities such as reading and calligraphy—are adorned with intricate bamboo thread marquetry, inner-skin bamboo carving, carved white jade insets, painted faux bamboo finishes and double-sided embroidered silk panels. Masterful trompe l’oeil garden murals on walls and ceilings, imperial sitting areas upholstered in embroidered silk and an openwork lacquer cabinet inlaid with mother-of pearl further highlight the emperor’s penchant for opulence.

“We searched hard to find artisans capable of replicating the long-lost skills and techniques used to create this elaborate interior, which is unique in China and the world,” says Wang Shiwei, deputy director of the historic architecture department at the Palace Museum. “Many of these artisans came from the southern provinces, a longtime center of traditional arts and crafts. We aimed to restore Juanquinzhai to its former glory, showcasing the aesthetic and technical brilliance that Qianlong admired and promoted. Interior decoration reached an artistic peak during his reign, and he used every means to pursue perfection.” The room-size murals, according to Wang, are particularly noteworthy not only because no other examples of this large scale are known to have survived, but because they show Western influence in their naturalistic detail and use of perspective. They are largely the work of a student of the Italian painter Guiseppe Castiglione, perhaps the most prominent of a group of Jesuit missionaries who served as court painters during the Qing dynasty.

“Qianlong welcomed the envoys of many countries to China, and Juanquinzhai reflects the encounter between traditional Chinese culture and the ideas of the West,” says Bonnie Burnham, president of the WMF. “While the West was embracing chinoiserie, the Chinese were creating art and interiors comparable in their opulence to what you’d find at Versailles. Restoring this masterpiece seems appropriate at a time when China is once again fully engaged with the international community.”

Walking into the Studio, one can imagine the Qianlong emperor seated on the balcony here, dressed in a yellow silk robe embroidered with dragons (a symbol of imperial power) and bedecked in long pearl necklaces, watching a musical performance on the stage below. The Qianlong emperor seemed to move effortlessly between his diverse roles as architect, designer, artist, arts patron, collector, poet, Confucian scholar and Tibetan Buddhist acolyte (China’s stance at that time vis-à-vis Tibetan religion was diametrically opposite to what it is today)—not to mention supreme ruler, military leader and family man. The Chinese emperors believed they ruled by heavenly mandate, and universal vision of Qianlong legitimized his imperial sobriquet, Son of Heaven.

In addition to his demanding imperial duties, Qianlong had more than 40 consorts—wives of various ranks, two of whom assumed the rarefied title of empress—and fathered 26 children. He also showed exceptional skill as a calligrapher, produced many mediocre paintings and wrote thousands of essays and more than 40,000 poems, many of them critiquing or otherwise extolling the virtues of the artworks in his collection. A tireless hands-on administrator, he traveled frequently throughout his vast empire—which extended from Siberia to the South China Sea and from Tajikistan to north of Japan—often accompanied by his beloved mother, the empress dowager, and sometimes on his longer tours by a retinue of thousands. In keeping with his Manchu heritage (the Manchus are an ethnic minority from China’s northeastern border), he was a skilled hunter and archer. He is said never to have worn the same clothes twice and allegedly slept with a different consort or concubine every night. When thinking about this larger-than-life figure the word excess naturally comes to mind, but it was precisely this excessive, even obsessive, nature that was responsible for the Qianlong emperor’s legacy of priceless art treasures.

The emperor demonstrated his wealth and power by collecting and commissioning a dazzling array of artworks and objects in both ancient and contemporary styles. In doing so, he built upon the cultural accomplishments of his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor, and his father, the Yongzheng emperor. These rulers recruited the most talented Chinese and European painters to their courts and established palace workshops where thousands of artisans created works in jade, lacquer, cloisonné, enamel, glass and wood, many of which filled the rooms of the Forbidden City. The emperor’s forbears also reinvigorated the imperial porcelain industry in Jingdezhen, a town in southern China whose wares are recognized as among the world’s finest examples of the medium.

“Qianlong took those achievements even further, pushing artists to work beyond the technical limits of the genres of the period and inspiring them to new creative heights,” says Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese art at the Peabody Essex and a consultant on the Juanqinzhai restoration. He encouraged innovations in jade carving, as well as the development of new ceramic glazes that imitated such diverse media as bamboo, bronze, lacquer and wood. He was fascinated by Western inventions and commissioned many European-style clocks, as well as detailed paintings in realistic European styles that documented daily life under his reign. “Perhaps more than anything else it was this amalgamation of Eastern and Western aesthetics and techniques that defines Qianlong art,” says Berliner. “The art of this period essentially evolves from one man’s extravagant vision and innovative, sophisticated taste, and it ranks among the finest produced anywhere in the 18th century.”

The myriad art forms that flourished during Qianlong’s reign—whether an intricate cloisonné censer, a masterfully painted famille rose porcelain bowl or a massive landscape-carved jade boulder—reached heights of rococo splendor that often surpassed that of the European decorative arts of the period. In addition to their marked European influence, these works often incorporate archaic forms and designs, such as those of ancient Chinese bronzes and porcelains. They are also characterized by lavish ornamentation—often expressed through imitating and combining various materials—and technical mastery, such as that demonstrated by a complex rotating openwork porcelain vase, for example.

Just as the Qianlong emperor was intimately involved with the design of his palaces, so, too, did he take an intense interest in everything produced in the imperial ateliers and workshops, where he supervised and reviewed the creations of painters and artisans, often suggesting changes or creating designs himself. In this sense, the emperor truly contributed to the development of a “Qianlong style.” He also dictated precisely where artworks would be displayed in the Forbidden City and in his other palaces around Beijing, and no one was permitted to move them without his consent.

As China’s longest-reigning monarch (he officially ruled for 60 years but retained behind-the-scenes control until his death in 1799, four years after he abdicated in favor of his son) who presided over a period of prosperity and political stability, the Qianlong emperor had both the time and the resources to create a cultural empire. Indeed, his collection is one of the most extensive compiled by any emperor.

Fortunately for later generations, his meticulous nature led him to compile numerous records and catalogues of the works in his collection, the finest of which bear his reign mark or seal—imperial stamps of approval. The great number of top-quality artworks produced under the Qianlong emperor, along with the fact that many have been extensively documented, offer considerable opportunities for collectors today. Indeed, demand for the best imperial Qianlong works has risen dramatically over the past five years, due largely to a generation of newly affluent mainland Chinese collectors eager to reclaim their artistic heritage.

Imperial artworks are those that either were commissioned by the emperor or otherwise made in the imperial workshops. They may have been made for the emperor’s own use or for the use of an imperial family member. Many of these works also decorated the imperial palaces, while others were made as gifts for visiting foreign envoys and Chinese officials. The finest imperial Qianlong paintings and calligraphy typically carry the emperor’s seal (a series of Chinese characters stamped in red ink). Top-quality imperial decorative arts often bear painted or incised reign marks. On jade piece, such marks are usually incised, and on the base of imperial porcelains they often appear in underglazed cobalt blue. A typical seal or reign mark may be translated, “Made in the years of the Qianlong emperor of the great Qing dynasty.”

“The Chinese are rediscovering their glorious past, and no one embodies that more than Qianlong, China’s greatest recent ruler during a golden age of Chinese culture,” says James Lally, a New York–based specialist dealer in Chinese art. “In his zeal to collect only the best, he is a paradigm for the contemporary Chinese collector. The presence of Qianlong’s seal or reign mark on an imperial artwork is an undeniable stamp of quality for the Chinese, indicating that it was made according to the highest standards. Chinese collectors are saying, ‘What was good enough for the emperor is good enough for me.’ And Western collectors have followed their lead.”

China’s rise to prosperity, along with exhibitions highlighting Chinese culture have ignited the renewed interest among Western collectors for top-quality Chinese art and antiques. Not surprisingly, the fierce competition for imperial masterpieces has sent prices soaring. An exquisite imperial Qianlong famille rose swallows bowl, from the legendary collection of Hong Kong dealer Robert Chang, fetched $19.7 million at Christie’s Hong Kong in November 2006, setting an auction record for Qing porcelain. That record was recently surpassed when a rare imperial Qianlong reticulated double-walled vase sold for $85.9 million this past November at Bainbridge’s auction house in England. Believed to have been made for one of the imperial palaces, the underglaze blue and yellow-ground famille rose vase, notable for its elaborate perforations, now holds the auction record for any Chinese antiquity.

At Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October 2010, a massive imperial Qianlong white jade seal, decorated with two carved dragons, brought $15.6 million, setting an auction record for any piece of white jade, as well as for any imperial Chinese seal. Other recent bestsellers include a detailed 1746 scroll painting, Emperor Qianlong’s Review of the Grand Parade of Troops, depicting the emperor in full military regalia on a white horse, which sold for $8.7 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October 2008, setting an auction record for an imperial Qing dynasty painting. The portrait is attributed to Castiglione, the sole court painter entrusted with portraits of the emperor.

Of all imperial artworks, porcelain has long been in the greatest demand. The largest amount of high-quality imperial porcelain was produced during Qianlong’s reign, according to Conor Mahony of The Chinese Porcelain Company in New York. London dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi says, “Enameled porcelains reached a technical and aesthetic peak during the Qianlong period. Imperial Qing famille verte and famille rose porcelains, in particular—which are decorated with a variety of rich colors in either dominant green or rose shades—are especially valued for their highly skilled and delicate enamel painting and firing.” Among the most sought-after examples, such as the $19.7 million swallows bowl, are of a type known as falangcai, meaning that they were fired at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen but enameled as unique creations in the Beijing palace workshops.

As prices for imperial porcelains have soared in recent years, collectors have begun turning to other works of art made for the imperial court, such as jades, cloisonné enamel, lacquer wares, glass, weaponry and textiles, which are now being recognized as significant art forms. “These works were traditionally considered minor arts, even though they were more costly and time-consuming to produce than porcelain,” says Nicolas Chow, international head of Chinese ceramics and works of art at Sotheby’s. “But as Chinese collectors place more emphasis on objects with historical cachet, particularly those that the emperors once owned and used, these works are also rising in price. Prices for imperial Qianlong artworks in all categories have at least tripled or quadrupled over the past five years.”

Auction frontrunners in this category include a pair of imperial Qianlong gilt bronze cloisonné enamel human figures, estimated at $2–3.3 million, that sold at Christie’s Paris in June 2007 for $8.7 million. At Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April of that year, a rare documented group of seven imperial Qianlong jade archer’s rings with their original cinnabar lacquer box and cover sold for $6 million. Once worn by the emperor himself, the thumb rings, as well as the box, were inscribed with poems he composed. The Qianlong emperor’s poems and comments were frequently inscribed on the artworks in his collection, and today’s collectors often pay a premium for these writings.

Though the truly exceptional examples are becoming increasingly rare on the market, there is still an ample supply of imperial Qianlong artworks, experts say. Collectors need not spend millions, however. Many high-quality imperial Qianlong porcelains and other wares with reign marks can be purchased for less than $50,000. “Some Qianlong period works not made in the palace workshops can be of imperial quality,” says Michael Bass, a specialist in Chinese ceramics and works of art at Christie’s. “Made for the Chinese luxury industry, these pieces can be purchased for as little as several hundred to several thousand dollars.” Qianlong, Son of Heaven, undoubtedly would be pleased by the attention being lavished on the earthly treasures he cultivated and collected.

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: March 2011

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